By Owais Majid
In all of the excitement about Jo-Wilfried Tsonga going into his first-round match against Casper Ruud, it was easy to forget about the young man on the other side of the net from the Frenchman, facing what was a pretty big occasion for himself. While court Philippe-Chatrier turned out in great numbers to witness the end of one man’s journey on a tennis court, there was another whose quest had only commenced fairly recently.
Neither Ruud nor Tsonga would have been too pleased when they discovered they were playing each other in the first round of the French Open. In an alternate reality in which Tsonga is 10 years younger and Ruud is five years older, these two could well be fighting it out in the latter stages of tournaments but alas, they were facing each other at very different times in their careers. For Tsonga, the significance was obvious — would he keep his career alive or walk into the sunset — but it can be forgotten that this match held a great deal of importance for Ruud too. It was interesting, therefore, to see how Ruud dealt with the occasion.
The play was fairly even throughout the first set, with both men holding serve with relative ease for the most part. As you might expect, the crowd was one that wouldn’t have been out of place at a football match. The 13,000 or so inside Chatrier were making a cacophony of noise and needless to say it wasn’t in support of Ruud.
With an inspired crowd behind his opponent and the momentum very much against him, Ruud lost the first set tiebreaker and at that point, he couldn’t have been feeling too great about life. It’s impossible for pretty much anyone reading this (although hello, Novak, if you’re a loyal Popcorn Tennis reader) to appreciate how difficult it must be to deal with that sheer number of people in essence celebrating your downfall. As such, it shouldn’t be underplayed how much of a hurdle that must have been for Ruud.
The second set followed in similar fashion to the first. On this occasion, though, Ruud was able to put Tsonga away in the tiebreaker to win a set in which he had definitely played better tennis and slightly lessened the crowd’s enthusiasm.
Set three was a far more comfortable task as far as Ruud was concerned. He ruthlessly took advantage of a dip in level from Tsonga to convincingly win that set by 6 games to 1, playing some really mature tennis along the way.
At that point, you’d have been forgiven if you’d have expected the rest of the match to play out in a similar manner to that of the third set. But Tsonga, being the champion that he is, refused to go away. The veteran Frenchman regained the level he was operating throughout sets one and two and that in of itself must have come as a bit of a surprise to Ruud. In spite of the crowd somehow managing to raise their volume even further and a rejuvenated Tsonga continuing to feed off of that, Ruud showed no signs of panic.
After being broken for 6-5, it’s honestly impossible to know for sure how Ruud would have reacted had Tsonga not suffered the injury, however if the rest of the match was anything to go by, you suspect he’d have dealt with it excellently.
It would have been completely understandable for Ruud, after finally closing out such a tough match, to let his emotions out upon victory. You’d even be hard pressed to criticise him too much if he gave a bit back to the crowd after how little he was appreciated throughout. However, Ruud barely acknowledged his victory, gave Tsonga a hug at the net and duly sat down in his chair to let Tsonga have his moment.
He then further endeared himself to everybody watching both within the stadium and at home in his on court interview after the match. Rather than talk about his own impressive performance, Ruud almost seemed to treat that as a side note from the real occasion, which in some ways I suppose it was. He regaled us all with an anecdote about how, as a child, Tsonga had made him, an avid Nadal fan, sad after he’d beaten the Spaniard in that memorable 2008 Australian Open run.
This spoke volumes about how self-aware Ruud is even in his young age. He said all the right things, acted in exactly the right way and put on an exemplary display during what must have been quite an emotional occasion for him too.
It’s important to consider this match from the Norwegian’s perspective. With the way the draw has landed and his love affair with clay, many have him going deep here and he will be well aware of that. That’s pressure he hasn’t previously had to contend with and we’ve seen time and again that players find it difficult to deal with that level of expectation for the first time. If you couple that with everything surrounding this match, it wouldn’t have been too farfetched to see Ruud struggle to deal with all of that emotion. But deal with it he did, in a manner reminiscent of a seasoned pro, not of a 23 year old in the infancy of his career.
One suspects that, as significant an occasion as this was for Tsonga, it was of paramount importance for Ruud too. This match will have done him a world of good. Even putting aside the wider context, playing an opponent with a level as high as that which Tsonga showed in a first round and coming through it can only be a good thing for Ruud going forward. Players past and present talk about how important match toughness can be for the latter stages of a slam and Ruud has certainly benefited in this regard against Tsonga.
So whilst all of the coverage will, understandably so, be about Tsonga, let us not forget about the man who put him into retirement today. He is undoubtedly a threat to the big names here. If that wasn’t crystal clear before today, it certainly is now.